The European Parliament (EP) recently voted in favor of a resolution that supports the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of sex work. With this decision from the 26th of February, the EP backs a report titled ‘Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality’ that was proposed by Labour MEP for London Mary Honeyball. The purpose of the report was to send a “strong signal to domestic governments”. The document states that criminalizing the buying of sex while making selling of it exempt from punishment (as is currently the case in Sweden, Iceland and Norway), will decrease the demand for sex work. This is intended to reduce human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the EP’s report, the ‘Nordic Model’ is presented as a policy approach that aims to protect sex workers.
However, the Nordic approach does not improve the situation of sex workers. Instead, it indirectly leads to a criminalization of everyone involved in sex work – obviously including sex workers themselves. Criminalizing sex work increases the vulnerability of sex workers who chose this work because of economic necessity, strict immigration laws or personal preference. Moreover, it does not help those who are victims of human trafficking and have been forced into prostitution either, but instead decreases their visibility. Often portrayed as dominating the sex industry, the scale of the victims of human trafficking represents a minority of sex workers in the UK: less than 10% of female sex workers (2600 out of 30000) working indoors have been trafficked according to the Association of Chief Police Officers’ 2010 report.
Being forced into sex work because of economic necessity and forced prostitution are not the same. The underlying assumption of supporters of an abolitionist approach is that all sex workers are victims. The MEP who proposed the EP report claims: “I simply do not believe that any more than an eccentric few go into prostitution through genuine preference. Prostitutes tend to enter the job young and to come from deprived backgrounds. Many have histories of abuse and addiction. Moreover, they’re increasingly likely to be from poorer EU countries – economically vulnerable and new to the UK. It’s not ‘just another job’.” However, many others from similar demographics are forced into potentially undesirable occupations, due to economic circumstances, and are also vulnerable to exploitation – yet few seek to criminalize their work. Rather than delegitimizing and victimizing certain professionals, policies and initiatives to address structural inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor should be developed. Viewing all sex workers as helpless victims takes away their right to self-determination and weakens their position in society.
Apart from discursive problems with the EP’s report and the ‘Nordic model’, concerns regarding the safety and well-being of sex workers need to be addressed. When clients are criminalized, sex workers are forced to offer their services in remote locations instead of safer indoor establishments. A report from the Swedish government that evaluates the effect of the Swedish model claims: “Street prostitution in Sweden has been halved since the prohibition was introduced in 1999. This reduction may be considered to be a direct result of the criminalization of sex purchases.” This figure is based on the number of sex workers who are in contact with the police and social workers. Rather than proving that street prostitution has actually decreased, this statistic may indicate that sex workers are relocating their work to less visible places, less accessible for social workers seeking to ensure their well-being. Furthermore, with a smaller pool of customers, competition not only bring down prices, but also makes it likely that sex workers will offer unsafe ‘special’ services. Under the Nordic model, clients will try to stay as anonymous as possible and may not give out their names or telephone numbers. This means that initiatives by sex workers to warn each other about abusive clients will be less effective decreasing the safety of their working conditions. Moreover, clients will not report cases of abuse or suspicion about trafficking cases if they are scared of the consequences for themselves. These factors increase sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, abuse and health problems.
The EP’s resolution on prostitution is another step in a phenomenon observed in Europe in general: the marginalization and exclusion of sex workers from public spaces. Sex workers are largely excluded from the political debate regarding the regulation of their own profession- sex work.  How can a policy claim to be emancipatory if it largely ignores the voices of those who are affected by it and who generally oppose the criminalization of their clients? To create meaningful policies that address the risks and problems sex workers face in their day-to-day work, sex workers have to be invited to take part in policy development. Only when people working in the sex industry have a strong legal status, work under safe conditions, and are visible in society will sex workers and forced prostitutes be in a position to improve their situation and seek support if necessary. Society and policy makers should get over their moralistic ideals and instead focus on what should really matter, namely the safety, well-being and emancipation of vulnerable groups. Prostitution laws should be designed that do not actively harm, but instead protect and empower people working in the sex industry.
cf. Hubbard et al 2008: 124ff.
cf. TAMPEP report 2009/ Mathieu 2003